Guess? Inc in Los Angeles are ‘trendsetters’ in more ways than one.
Sarah Cox reports on a trade-union faced by a false label.
Somewhere in the world there are 850 pairs of Guess jeans that were sewn in Los Angeles by Maria Eugenia Cruz – a Mexican immigrant and single mother of three – on the day after she had minor surgery to remove a growth on her head. With a bandage and a headache, she was ordered to show up for work at the usual hour of 7.15 in the morning, or risk losing her job.
Cruz worked for Jeans Plus, one of the largest of an estimated 80 contract-sewing shops that made Guess garments in LA. On a good day, fingers flying, she earned an average of $4.68 an hour – seven cents less than California’s minimum wage at the time and $1.07 less than today’s minimum. Steve Nutter, western states director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), says it costs Guess less than $5 in wages to make a pair of jeans that sells for $50 or more.
The only time workers were granted time-off with pay was when the company sent them to anti-union rallies. Guess also gave hundreds of workers paid leave when it rented buses to transport them to its annual shareholder meeting, where the company anticipated a union demonstration. The workers were regaled with fancy food and drink, and given white T-shirts with red hearts that said ‘We love Guess’.
A darling of the designer set since it burst into the jeans market in 1981 with skin-tight superfaded denims, Guess’ love affair with Americans is wearing thin. Once known for racy advertisements featuring young models in sexually-suggestive poses, Guess is now the target of a growing boycott.
The first hint of trouble came in 1992, when Guess contractors were cited by the US Department of Labor for failing to pay employees the minimum wage or adequate overtime. Faced with litigation, Guess paid $573,000 in back wages.
The promise made by Guess to monitor contractors earned it a coveted spot on the US Department of Labor’s ‘Trendsetters List’. But even as the company trumpeted its trendsetter status, Guess clothing was discovered in illegal industrial-home operations.
Disgruntled sewers approached UNITE and asked for help. Together, in August 1996, they filed a class-action lawsuit against the company and some of its contractors. Guess was suspended from the Trendsetters List after inspectors found violations at seven contractors. In a settlement supervised by the US Department of Labor, Guess reinstated 20 workers who had been illegally fired and agreed to give them $80,000 in back-pay. Then the company announced it was moving its sewing operations to Tehuacán, Mexico.
Guess’ swift move illustrates the difficulties of trying to organize workers in a global economy. In the early 1960s, when the garment industry was booming in the US and sewers were concentrated in large shops, almost a million workers were union members. Now less than 300,000 belong to UNITE, an amalgamation of two garment unions. In California, only 5,000 remain unionized – a quarter of previous membership – and companies like Guess refuse to contract the shops where they work.
The fragmentation of the industry makes it extremely difficult to organize workers. ‘Let’s say you organize one small factory that makes Guess clothes,’ explains Nutter. ‘It won’t be able to compete against the others and likely would lose the contract. We’re trying to organize Guess workers in dozens of factories all at the same time.’
Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Guess continues to promote itself as a ‘leader in enacting voluntary reforms to end sweatshop labor practices’, with the ‘strongest program in the industry’. With the boycott eroding 1997 sales, Guess attempted to polish its tarnished image by making high-profile charitable contributions. At Christmas 1997 – when some former sewers were still searching for work – the company partnered with the Los Angeles International Church to feed thousands of poor people and clothe them in trendy Guess garments. Guess also made much of its recent sponsorship of The Freedom Writers, a group of 45 inner-city LA high-school students who write and speak out against discrimination and injustice.
Last December, Guess launched its own ‘anti-sweatshop campaign’ in an ironic attempt to appeal to conscientious shoppers. The company ran full-page ads in major daily American newspapers claiming that its contractors are ‘guaranteed 100 per cent free of sweatshop labor’. After federal authorities protested the ads’ suggestion that they had officially certified Guess’ production to be sweatshop-free, the company modified its publicity to make the claim without attribution. Guess also attached tags to Christmas-season apparel which claimed ‘This is a no-sweat garment’.
In response, UNITE has stepped up its public-relations campaign against Guess. The union has sponsored newspaper ads signed by hundreds of political, labour, human-rights and religious leaders in the US. The ads call for justice at Guess and an end to sweatshops. Former sewers like Cruz stand outside some of the 1,345 US stores that sell the company’s jeans and other clothing, asking shoppers to boycott Guess. They carry signs that say ‘Shame on Guess’, and ‘There are no holidays in a sweatshop’.
Cruz hopes the company will eventually listen to stories like hers. ‘I wish that, instead of moving production to Mexico, Guess would begin to work with companies that have unions so the workers are paid a better wage. We shouldn’t have to work 10 or 12 hours a day to earn 40 or 50 dollars.’
Sarah Cox is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, BC, who writes about globalization.